Plot and Theme

“In nearly all good fiction, the basic — all but inescapable — plot form is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.” – John Gardner

The first vital part of your novel we’ll look at in more detail is the plot.  If you get this right you will compel your reader to turn page after page.

The plot is what happens in your story.  New writers will often write their first book as a straightforward sequence of events, but this displays a lack of planning and makes for a pretty boring experience for the reader.  You can’t just have one or two characters moving effortlessly from one scene to another – life just doesn’t work like that! And just as life is complex, so is determining the perfect plot.

Your novel needs:

– Multiple characters – but not too many, and every one of them must have a distinct purpose.

– Multiple events – where things do not go to plan.

– Everything to happen for a reason, and the reader needs to understand that reason.

All plots also need these elements:

1) Something happens in your protagonist’s life to shake things up and change the course of events.

2) The main character wants or needs something to make things right again (this can be something new, something he/she has lost or something that he/she wants).

3) He/she goes on a physical or emotional journey to achieve their goal.

4) There are obstacles in their way as they go on this journey, and he/she struggles to overcome them.

5) He/she either does or doesn’t get what they are looking for, but no matter what they are a changed personafter what they have experienced.

But it is not enough to simply have a solid plot…

“Character is plot; and plot is character.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

As you are developing your plot, try to think about the impact that these events will have on every character.  Being aware of all the various reactions will help you to move the story on convincingly and make sure you haven’t missed any exciting moments.  All these separate arcs in the story will combine to give you a more effective climax.

Understandably, each author wants to make their mark on the publishing world and write something different, but let’s take a look at the main type of plot formulae that have had a proven success rate and can still be used as a base for an original first novel.

  1. The quest (action, adventure)

The main character is faced with a huge unexpected obstacle – often life-threatening.  There seems to be no positive end in sight as he goes to the ends of the earth to try and solve this dilemma that has totally stalled his day-to-day life.  Everything is against him – new characters will thwart his progress, all weather and transport will delay him, and authority figures will stand in his way.  He challenges will escalate until he reaches the most testing of them all. Ultimately he will triumph over adversity.

See…The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien); Lord of the Flies (William Golding); The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemmingway).

  1. The prize (thrillers, romance) – The protagonist’s life is not at risk but he still has a strong goal, which it seems he is unlikely to achieve, but he never gives up – despite all the difficulties he encounters – and is eventually victorious.

See…Emma (Jane Austen); Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) ; The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks) .

  1. The race – Many characters are all trying to reach the same goal, but only one will make it. Each opponent has their own story and reason to fight to the end, and will probably have links with their competitors, which can also be explored for maximum tension.

See…The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins); National Velvet (Enid Bagnold) .

  1. The contest – Two strong characters or groups face each other in a dramatic showdown. The two sides are often from the same family or in a close friendship or relationship to heighten the stakes.

See…Dangerous Liaisons (Pierre Choderlos De Laclos) ; A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) .

  1. The puzzle (crime) – Clues are drip-fed to the reader to keep them in suspense until the mystery is solved at the end of the novel. The plot is complex with many twists and uncertainties.

See…The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan); Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carre);The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)

  1. The chase – The protagonist’s main goal is to stop another character from committing a terrible crime or act. It is often the case that the villain has triumphed over the hero in the past, but in this case the hero must win.

See…Les Misérables (Victor Hugo); Watership Down (Richard Adams); Beowulf (Unknown).

  1. The relationship – (romance) – There are a few popular plotlines when is comes to love stories…
  • Boy meets girl, loses her and fails to win her back again and again until he figures out a crazy way to finally charm her.

See…A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare)

  • Boy meets girl but they don’t realize how perfectly matched they are. As friends, they witness the many ups and downs of each other’s unhappy relationships until they eventually realize they are the ones who should be together.

See…Bridget Jones’ Diary (Helen Fielding)

  • Boy meets girl and they loathe each other. Somehow they are linked virtually / professionally but don’t know it and complain about each other to each other via phone, email, social media.  Through this experience they become close, until they realize their true identity.  This can be a pleasant or unpleasant surprise!

See…Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen); Attachments (Rainbow Rowell).

You can of course combine two (or more) of these plot types together when planning your novel.

Ultimately you must know what your plot is and you must get into it as soon as possible to engage the reader. Ideally, your reader will gain their first insight into your plot from the very first line of the book, and at the very least a plot should be established in the first chapter.

When choosing your main goal, it has to be something that a broad audience will understand and empathize with, and the difficulty they are up against has to be significant.  Not every plot needs to be life or death, but if it is not life changing, nobody will care enough to follow the struggle.

You can add your own spin and original take in the way your characters accomplish their goals – be clever and inventive when it comes to the completion of each mission.  Your hero will be determined and therefore be looking at all possible resources to help him win – the options open to him, or his approach, can be unusual to surprise the reader. If you think about the way YOU would get out of a certain trap then you are limiting the methods of escape.  You need to look at the solution from your character’s point of view and use the skills you have given him.

Sub-plots can add rich detail to secondary characters but be careful how many you introduce because you could end up over-complicating the story. Too many sub-plots means too many loose ends which need to be tied up by the end, lengthening your novel unnecessarily and distracting your reader from the main conflict.

The theme of your novel is the central idea of the story.  It is evident throughout the whole manuscript, with all the action and dialogue echoing the theme.

The life lesson that the protagonist learns as he/she progresses on their journey directly relates to the theme.  Focus on the moral of the tale when determining your theme.

Theme is the area of human concern that a novel investigates – whether emotional or societal.

Don’t be afraid to go niche with your theme – not every novel has to deal with concepts as lofty as war and peace. However, you do need to settle on a theme before you start plotting your novel, otherwise you risk losing your way and writing yourself into a corner.

It is also possible to have more than one theme, with multiple messages threaded through the plot.  For instance, it could be about loss and acceptance (P.S. I Love You, Cecelia Ahern), or about travel and social satire (Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift).

Some themes might show themselves in a pattern, regularly reminding the reader of the moral significance of the theme. Others will build slowly, with the reader becoming gradually more aware of the meaning. Your theme may even have its own motif – in Moby Dick, for instance, the white whale represents everything from the whaling industry to the limits of human knowledge, to the power of fate, to the rise of communism.

Ideally you should concentrate on one strong theme when developing your first novel so the reader definitely picks up on what moral you are trying to teach them (through your characters) and that the sense of it is sustained to the end.  This should be so clear to you that you can summarize it in one sentence.  You can add an additional, more understated theme later if you feel you need to add more weight to the story.

“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”
― Khaled Hosseini

Theme as One Word Statement

Here are some examples of themes that are simple one-word statements – the first thing that will come to the reader’s mind when asked to sum up the novel’s theme…

Death Wish, Robert Garfield – JUSTICE

Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort – GREED

The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King– HOPE

Saving Private Ryan, Max Allan Collins – BRAVERY

Man on Fire, A. J. Quinnell – REVENGE

Last Tango in Paris, Robery Alley – DESIRE

My Girl, Patricia Hermes – LOSS

Requiem For A Dream, Hubery Selby, Jr. – OBSESSION

These are the overwhelming emotional tones and subject matters which we think bind the stories together, the human traits or experiences embodied in character and plot.

Whilst one-word theme statements can be the starting point for a novel, kind of a ‘thematic setting’, more advanced writers move beyond broad concepts and examine very particular questions about people, society and the world – they ask Thematic Questions and make Thematic Statements.

Thematic Question – a question posed about the nature of humanity or society, which is investigated in the novel’s plot.

Thematic Statement – a conclusion about the nature of humanity or society.

Act One / Beginning of your novel – Raise Thematic Question

Act Two / Middle of your novel – Investigate Thematic Question

Act Three / End of your novel – Conclude Thematic Question with Thematic Statement

Style tips:how to write a novel course

– Use single spacing for your synopsis.

– Use indented paragraphs, with no spaces between paragraphs.

– Write in the present tense.

– Write in the third person.

– Write in the same style as your book.

You can play around with this as much as you like, but it’s best to get this completed before you start your first draft.

Print off your synopsis and keep it near you while you write to ensure that you don’t stray too far from your plot.


Style Tips

“Style is to forget all styles.”—Jules Renard 

You need to find your own style – your own voice or distinctive way of writing – but this will develop naturally, over time. It is not something you need to fret over and it will come with practice.

But here are some fundamental dos and don’ts when it comes to style.  Apologies if some of these basic rules are obvious to you, but they are important and so it’s worth being reminded of every one of them.


– Do not mix your tenses within a passage.

– Do not use clichés – it’s lazy. Using unoriginal overused phrases is off-putting for readers, think of your own expressions or descriptions instead.

– Don’t overuse similes or metaphors.

– Don’t be overly descriptive – too many adjectives will swamp the plot!

– Don’t use descriptive words only found in dictionaries. Being a novelist doesn’t mean showing of your wide knowledge of the English language.  Keep it (mostly) simple or no-one will understand what you’ve written!

– Don’t be repetitive – with your vocabulary, with your description or with your action. This seems sloppy and can jar with the reader if it interrupts the flow of your prose.

– Don’t overuse jargon. Some professions you write about will require a certain level of jargon to remain authentic, but you can’t assume that your readers will have any background knowledge of this field. What’s more, explaining this jargon is exhausting for both you and the reader and can bog down the story in detail. Sometimes its best to just leave it out.

– Don’t use exposition. This is when you tell your readers exactly what is going on in a an obvious manner.  There are more creative ways to convey information (More on this below)

– Don’t overuse or unnecessarily use slang or swearing.

– Don’t over punctuate – especially with exclamation marks!!!

 “Resist the temptation to try to use dazzling style to conceal weakness of substance.”-Stanley Schmidt


– Be concise in everything you write. Too many words spoil the reading experience.

– Be clear in your writing so the reader so they can follow the story and understand why events happen.

– Ensure the subject and verb in your sentences agree. They should either both be singular or both be plural. If in doubt, ask your writing group or a literary friend.

– Use description to enhance the key parts story and bring it to life. Too much description is tedious but leave the reader with not enough and they can’t visualise your characters, backdrop or action.

– Stick to one particular perspective and tense throughout your novel. If you have to switch at all only do it within certain contained chapters – never within a chapter, it’s too confusing.

Exposition is “writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain; a detailed statement.” It is also known as lazy writing!  You’ll recognise exposition when you feel like you are giving the reader a history lesson, rather than telling them a story.

Authors use it – either by accident, or because they can’t think of another way – to write backstory, historical context, or prior plot events in a way the reader will pick up on.  What you need to remember is you are more skilled than that, and the reader is cleverer than you think. They like mystery and looking for clues, and will be disappointed if they aren’t left to think for themselves a bit.

You obviously need to explain some things – especially in a completely new world – but simply swamping the reader with details (known as an ‘information dump’) is boring and wading through dense narrative, void of personality, makes tough reading.

It is more engaging, and realistic, to “show not tell.” If you need to explain something, convey the information via the actions of a character or the events happening in that scene.  For example it is more exciting to discover a map rather than be told where the treasure is, or to find a diary revealing a secret rather than be told by another gossiping character.

You can use dialogue to impart information BUT don’t have the protagonist sit down and have a heart-to-heart about his feelings, or tell a story about his childhood.

For example, rather than using the dialogue – “I’m broke” you could use any one, or a combination of these actions:

– The character’s credit card is declined at a counter.

– They steal food.

– They get an overdraft notice or loan refusal from their bank.

– They turn down going out with friends.

– They look jealously at someone spending money.

See what a difference that makes? It’s much more interesting and engaging if an action shows the reader a situation rather than telling them.


 It is important to consider who is going to tell your story.  The viewpoint you choose will have a big impact on the reading experience.  Often your novel will lend itself to a particular style, but it is worth thinking through your options.  When it comes to perspective in novel-writing, you have four choices:

1) First person – told from the narrator’s perspective (which is often the main character, but not always), using the viewpoint of “I” and “we”. This allows the reader to get to know the inner thoughts of the person, but limits the known feelings of others in the story. It is a subjective view of everything that unfolds, and therefore it can be unreliable.

2) Second person – told from the reader’s perspective of “you.” Do NOT use this when writing a novel, it is best utilised in poetry or songs.

3) Third person limited – one character’s thoughts and actions are told at a time, using “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.” This is the most commonly used perspective, allowing you to move between the characters and convey all emotions and actions equally. Your viewpoint is “limited” to what the focal character/s knows or feels at that given moment of the plot.

4) Third person omniscient – an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator, who is like a character in itself (but not a written one), who tells the thoughts and actions of everyone. They know everything there is to know, past and present, of all the characters so have very different insight.


“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

In a character-driven novel, the first person narrative is an instantaneous and effective means of introduction.

The only limitation is your imagination, but there are a few considerations to take into account when you are writing in the first person:

– If you have created a really exciting character whose personality and viewpoint is key to the story then writing in the first person allows you maximize their traits and the reader will feel the world around them as they do.

– As the narrator, the protagonist’s voice must be distinctive enough to carry out the task of telling the whole story – very amusing or intensely creepy, for example. You must consider their style.
– They also have to be likeable (or fascinating if they are a “baddie”) otherwise the reader won’t want to stick with them throughout the book.

– Using the first person from a secondary character’s viewpoint can be very effective so don’t automatically opt for the main character. If Sherlock Holmes weren’t from Watson’s perspective, it would have been a very different story.

– You can obviously never kill off this character, or you are left without anyone telling us how the story ends.

– You story will be inherently biased. The narrating character is all the reader has to rely on to know what’s going on.

– You can’t write about what is happening anywhere else, except where your narrating character is (and what they are witnessing at that location), which could be a difficulty for some stories.

– You won’t be able to describe your narrator’s physical appearance. How the other characters react to him / her will allow the reader to create this image in their mind.


“The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.” – Catch 22, Joseph Heller

When you write in the third person tense, you can get away with making dramatic and almost omniscient statements which directly inform the reader about your characters and their motivations. The danger here is that you may become too reliant on the narrative as a tool for characterization, and end up with a novel full of clunky, expository prose.

On the plus side, you have much more leeway to explore random sub-plots and minor characters, and you can jump backwards and forwards in time if you think it would help the narrative.

Here are a few other considerations regarding the third person narrative choice –

– The third person perspective means your narrator is a nameless, faceless voice, which is usually authoritative, so they may not have the same warmth and depth as the first person.

– You can leave some distance between the events unfolding and the feelings of the characters, allowing the reader to use their imagination a bit. Readers don’t need to know every single thought of every single character.

– Without a first person perspective, the reader has to figure out the motivations and decisions of the characters via the action and dialogue, so make sure these are well-written enough to do this job.

– You can flick around between the characters viewpoints which means you can describe how everyone is feeling in a scenario and about each other e.g. the captor and the captive; the husband and the wife. Any argument has two sides revealed, with the reader able to choose between them.

– For a first novel it is best to use a maximum of four characters’ viewpoints or things can get too complicated.

– If you are using multiple perspectives, make sure you write from the viewpoint of whoever is the most important in that particular scene. Stick with them until the end of the scene or until the action makes it necessary to change viewpoint. If you flit about too often the reader will end up irritated and unable to identify with any of your characters.

– Your characters must be distinctive enough (in their views, their tone, their reactions) that the reader knows instantly when you have switched to a new perspective.

What all stories need

 “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

W. Somerset Maugham 


There is no magic formula for a best-selling novel. Every writer imbues their prose with an indefinable quality that either captures the imagination of their readers, or doesn’t. No one can write ‘your’ novel, as you are its heart and its soul.

However, almost all successful novels have the same critical components, which you should try to include in your own story.

Here’s what you need to aim for –

1) Credible characters – your readers should care about your characters, especially your protagonist. But don’t forget to pay attention to the surrounding characters – they need to be rich in detail too. All should have vibrant, complicated personalities, which we can identify with.  Goodies or baddies, we need to understand their actions.

2) Goals – Your main character needs a purpose and it needs to be convincing. What does he want and why does he want it so badly? Will people buy into that goal enough to read the whole book?

EXAMPLE – If Frodo Baggins set out on a simple quest, would The Lord of The Rings have sustained a trilogy and inspired an epic movie franchise? No. A clear goal with high stakes keeps readers gripped: if Frodo doesn’t prevent Sauron, the Dark Lord, from getting hold of the ring, Sauron’s power will become so great that the whole of Middle Earth will be enslaved to him.

3) Obstacles – No hero or heroine’s journey is a smooth one, or every novel would be one chapter long. There needs to be difficulty and decision-making all along the way – and they need to be tough issues to overcome otherwise, who cares? These complications are what give you your plot.

4) An interesting setting – Not every novel needs to be set in a magical world or another planet, but don’t ignore the location of the action. The setting can bring the story to life as much as the characters and it could be vital to the reader if it plays into plot twists.

EXAMPLE – It is often said that in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the moors almost become a character unto themselves. The wild and unpredictable setting is crucial to the plot and characterization, and adds an intangible but moody quality that stays with the reader long after they have finished reading the book.

5) A first page that sells the whole book – Page one is important. It’s what everyone will read to decide whether or not they want to keep reading. If they do, then the chances of the reader wishing to represent you / publish the novel / buy the book are increased. This is your chance to draw the reader into your world and want them to stay.

EXAMPLE – “Last night I dreamed of Manderlay again.” (Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier ); “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick – Herman Melville ); “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens ) – we all have our favorite opening lines which stick in the memory and conjure up the whole mood of the book to follow.

6) Gripping first 50 pages – Stories have to develop at a certain pace or your readers will get bored and give up on the book. Don’t spend the beginning of your novel droning on about the character’s childhood days – find savvier ways to reveal background information, cut to the chase and get the readers immersed in the actual story. Once you set the pace you also need to keep it up!

EXAMPLE – Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-prize nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves opens with a violent act of rebellion, which our protagonist tells us is occurring in the middle of her story.  We are already immersed in her world 50 pages in, when it is revealed that her ‘missing; sister is a chimpanzee, setting us up for the real narrative.

7) Drama – This doesn’t have to be a plane crash or a car chase, it can be tense dialogue or an awkward dinner party, but we all want conflict. There must always be some action or conversation propelling the story forward and building the drama.

8) Tension and twists – Give the readers suspense and surprises. Both will spur readers on to find out how it all ends.

EXAMPLE – Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller Gone Girl is just another missing person saga until we reach the end of the novel’s first third and discover that not only is Amy Dunne alive, but she orchestrated her own disappearance. This big reveal is the very definition of a page-turner, and won some serious word of mouth currency for its author.

9) Interwoven relationships – How your main character interacts with others will help your story be believable and highlight victories and dilemmas. The characters you create must be as complex as we find people in real life – don’t scrimp on their details just because they are secondary.

EXAMPLEHannibal Lecter is one of the most iconic literary characters of the modern age, inspiring novels, films and even a TV-series. For author Thomas Harris, this is a triumph of characterization. Hannibal is a murderer and a cannibal, yes, but he is also intelligent, cultured, charming and able to form fascinatingly close relationships with the same people who are pursuing him.

10) Captivating (but realistic) dialogue – A great deal can be revealed in short exchange between two characters. Well written, concise speech can convey personality, tension, emotion – sometimes much more effectively than a paragraph of prose. It can also effectively develop the plot. But what you shouldn’t do is have characters sit down and explain things to each other – it’s unnatural and you can convey information to your reader more cleverly. And remember, not all characters speak in the same way!

11) Cliff-hangers – Leave your reader wanting more at the end of each chapter or at least wondering what happens next. You want them to keep turning the pages of your book. Don’t overdo this with a major event every chapter, but give them some intrigue, a dilemma, an argument.

EXAMPLE – George R. R. Martin is an expert at the literary cliffhanger, killing off main characters and introducing new obstacles at breakneck speed in his Game of Thrones series of novels. His most famous cliffhanger is undoubtedly the ‘red wedding’, which took place just over halfway through A Storm of Swords and left many of the series’ protagonists dead.

12) A brilliant ending – It can be shocking, happy or sad – but it must be satisfying for the reader, and all loose ends must be dealt with. Don’t weave many plot threads to leave one ignored in the closing stages, or conveniently kill off a character because you don’t know how to solve his dilemma.  There must be as much creativity and effort put into your final page as you applied to your first.

EXAMPLE – Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s opus One Hundred Years of Solitude. The ending delivers exactly what the title promises – a story which spans exactly one hundred years and delivers a sense of closure for all characters involved.

We will explain this checklist in more detail throughout the course, and advise on how to achieve each aspect, but while you are thinking up your original idea you need to bear these in mind.

Methods of Writing

We all have different ways of writing. Maybe you like to savor the act of writing by using a proper fountain pen and good quality paper; maybe you need to take a running start at a blank page with a pencil; maybe you prefer the feel of an old fashioned keyboard under your fingertips; or maybe you are a touchscreen convert. Whatever way you write, it’s the right way for you.

However, when it comes to submitting your work to a publisher, the manuscript must be typed. Typing your novel as you go will save you a lot of time, and even if your typing skills leave a lot to be desired, the more you practice, the faster you will get. The average hand writing speed is around 30 words per minute, while most people can type at a speed of at least 50 words per minute.

Working on a computer also gives you the satisfaction of knowing how many words you’ve typed by the end of your session, and that everything is spelt correctly.

However, in the early stages when you are finding inspiration and mulling over ideas, plots, and characters, having a notebook with you all the time is beneficial.  You can jot down anything that pops into your head and play around with it on the page – brainstorming possible names, drafting a family tree, making a note of key characteristics.


“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way ya write it.” — Jack Kerouac

There are two main types of writer: planners and improvisers. You can be one of these in the extreme or somewhere in the middle.

Planners, unsurprisingly, plan. Everything.  They enjoy it. All plotting is carefully constructed, all characters are fully formed and all settings are totally decided before the writing starts. They know exactly how the story will develop and they gradually lay this on the page.

Improvisers are more instinctive and generally hate planning.  They write in creative bursts with the story forming organically as they rush to get all their ideas down, before the next surge of enthusiasm grasps them and they rattle off another chapter.  This is just the way some people work, and they will almost certainly finish their first draft before any “planner” in their writers group.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” — Elmore Leonard

Whichever writing type you fall into, there are always techniques that you can use to help you get started, or give you focus when you’re having difficulty writing.

1) The Word Target.  Write 2,000 words every day – no matter what.  This might only take you three hours, in which case you can skip off to the beach for the rest of the day, or it might take you until 3am to painfully pull these words from your brain one by one.  Either way, you get the words on the page and it moves you forward.  It can make you feel like you have achieved something every day and get your first draft finished in 2-3 months.

2) The Word Ceiling.  Write a maximum of 500 words a day.  This may seem a measly amount, you may be ‘chomping at the bit’ to do more, and you may feel that it draws out the production of the first draft too much for you.  The idea behind it is that the 500 words start you off on a train of thought that you continue to develop throughout the rest of the day.

3) The Burst. You write in 30-60 minute stages.  When you feel the force isn’t with you, leave the desk (or wherever you are working) for 30-60 minutes and then return for another burst.  Having these breaks can be refreshing for a busy brain an help you figure out any problems you are struggling with.

4) The Immersion.  You write in 4 hour blocks. Nothing else.  There are no distractions, everything is switched off, the door doesn’t get answered.  You can completely throw yourself into your writing and think deeply about the aspect you are tackling that day.  Or you can completely dread that four hours that stands in front of you, because it is a very long time if you aren’t feeling inspired.

5) Early Bird.  You wake up at the crack of dawn, and the first thing you do is write.  It is quiet, you’re rested, and you can get a lot done before the rest of the world gets going.  If you have a day job, you feel like you have made another step towards your dream of publication before you go into the office.  

6) Night Owl. The night is when you write. The day’s ‘to do list’ has been completed, and the night is yours to create your world on paper. This is when some people are most creative, but for others they are exhausted and just need a glass of wine, dinner and bed.

7) The Jigsaw. You start writing the scenes that excite you the most, the inspirational parts that made you want to write a book in the first place.  There is no order to this method in the early stages, you just embrace your initial enthusiasm and rush of ideas and worry about connecting them later.  This can be effective because it ensures your mind, and your novel, are centred around your prize moments.  But you will get yourself in a right muddle if you don’t have a well-thought out plan of how these pieces come together.  If you use this technique, make sure you know your plot line and your character timeline in advance (guidance on these later in the course) or you will be giving yourself plenty of rewriting to do.

As long as you write routinely and steadily you will find your own pace and figure out realistically how many pages you can produce per week.  Don’t rush your writing or you will end up chucking it in the bin, but if you dwell over every tiny detail at the beginning then you will never get anything concrete on the page.


No matter what your chosen style is, you must format your work properly or you will give potential agents and publishers an instant reason to discard your manuscript.

This is what most professional agents and publishers expect:

– A title page (including the manuscript title and your name – centered, halfway down the page – your contact information, the word count, and your agent’s contact details, if you have one)

– Numbered pages (which start on the first page of your text – do NOT number your title page)

– A header on each page (except your title page), including your name, the title of your novel in capitals, and the page number e.g. Jones – DEATH – 1 or Smith/MONSTER/2.  If your title is long, then a key word is fine for the header.  It is often recommended the header is right aligned.

– Double-spaced text throughout the entire manuscript

– 1” margins

– ½ indent for a new paragraph

– Standard font (e.g. Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier) in 12-point type

– Text aligned to the left

– A page break after each chapter

– Each new chapter to begin one-third of the way down a fresh page.  The chapter number and / or chapter title should be centered and in capital letters.  If you are using both, separate them using two hyphens: CHAPTER 1—THE DISCOVERY

– The body of the chapter text to begin four lines below the chapter title.

– A centered hash symbol in a doubled spaced, blank line at the end of your manuscript to indicate there are no missing pages, or you can simply type The End.

These are your basic formatting guidelines.  ALWAYS double check what the individual publishers / agents prefer and submit according to their requirements, which occasionally vary slightly from what we have listed.

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.
Jane Yolen

The Idea

 “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

Linus Pauling

When deciding on what your novel is going to be about you’d better make sure that you are totally inspired by the idea behind it.

This book is going to take up all of your spare time so you need to love it!  Feel passionate about the place your story is taking place, identify with main character, and invest yourself fully in the mystery that needs to be solved. Put a piece of yourself into your novel, because otherwise you will find it too easy to give up and stop typing when you get tired or distracted.

Before you start this process, it is important to realise that your first idea might not be ‘The One’.  No novel writes itself, and you can expect your plot and characterization to take many twists and turns before you land at a point where things start taking shape.

Try brainstorming a few ideas to see which one has legs. Enjoy this part and just let your creative juices flow – you’ll know when you’ve found the best idea for you.



One way to explore ideas that will sustain your attention is to think about novels or films that you have been moved by, changed your view of the world, or made the biggest impression on you.  Make a list of these favourite stories and spot what the common threads are through these.  This should point out what excites you creatively, and you should seek to capture these aspects in your own story.

To help you drill down further in to the details of these observations and develop them further, consider these categories when reflecting on your list:

Genre. Do you prefer romances, murder mysteries, or paranormal? Do you like stories set in the “real world” or in a fantasy world? Do you enjoy futuristic, present day, or period novels?

Character. What type of people do you connect with in stories? Who do you empathise with? Do you like stories about princesses and knights in castles or gangs living in ghettos?  A lonely individual or a social butterfly?  A family saga or a group of best friends?

Problems. Do all the characters you love strive for the same goals?  Do you enjoy stories revolving around revenge, rescue, fulfilling a dream, winning a war, freedom, finding love, healing family rifts?  Do you tend to prefer more internal conflict – characters struggling with personal issues, emotional challenges, relationship difficulties?  Or do you love lots of external threats – disease, extreme weather, invasion, strike action?

Themes. What values do your favorite stories concentrate on? What lessons do the characters in them learn or fail to learn?


Some writers begin with a strong rough idea for a novel, perhaps spinning out from a ‘what if?’ hypothetical question.

– What if a drone aircraft struck a village of innocent people?

– What if someone hired a hitman to kill a political leader, but he killed the wrong one?

– What if we lived inside a computer simulation?

Starting your writing process with a fundamentally dramatic idea can help ensure that your story will be full of conflict.


Some novels might begin life with a fundamentally interesting character, with story then fleshed out on top of the character.  If you decide to start this way, it is important to find a worthy plot through which to exploit the character.


Some books begin life with a writer who wants to explore a particular arena which interests them.  This could be a specific country or culture that they have fallen in love with and feel is full or rich imagery and adventure, or it could be a familiar mundane place such as a workplace that a writer knows intimately and maybe wants to ridicule or expose or juxtapose with a unexpected plot.


Some writers may wish to explore a topic or theme, and will then explore characters and plots which can express the topic which chimes with them.

This can be particularly true of a writer who wishes to express something which has happened to them, or a feeling which engulfs them, or something they see in their day-to-day lives – but who does not wish to simply write verbatim what is going on around them.

Are there feelings or themes which resonate with you?

Do you like underdog tales?

Do you feel frustrated about the amount of greed in the world?

Finding your abstract passion can fuel your writing experience, but you must then find strong worlds, story ideas and characters to express your thoughts.

EXERCISE – Generating Concepts

Experiment with the different ‘ways-in’ to ideas.

Can you think of a fantastic ‘what if’ to base a film on?

Can you think of a unique, odd or engrossing character?

Can you think of a setting which hasn’t been used before, or one which is full of conflict?

Can you think of a theme which resonates with you?

Try to develop a short paragraph idea for a novel that interests you.  Don’t worry about how ‘good’ your ideas are at this stage – the aim is to be freely creative and explore your imagination and story possibilities.


 “The task of a writer consists in being able to make something out of an idea.”

– Thomas Mann

Imagine you’re at a dinner party (or actually go to one!) and you tell someone you are writing a book… that person will immediately ask you a whole string of questions: What’s it about? Who is the main character? Where does it all take place? What happens at the end?  Of course, you don’t have to answer any of these questions, but you should know the answers deep within yourself

The next step is to add more layers of detailed questions on top of that list.  For example, if the first question is: What’s your main character’s name?

Some more detailed questions could be:

– Who are his friends?
– What does he drive?
– What does his home look like?
– What style of clothes does he wear?
– Where does he spend his weekends?
– What are his weaknesses? (yes, it’s OK for the hero to have flaws!)


Once you have conjured an idea, what criteria should you judge it against?

1) Market

– Is there a marketplace for this kind of book?

– What similar novels have succeeded in the past? Is yours different enough?

2) Genre Potential

– Does the story have the inherent structure or plot to hit on genre expectations? Can your comedy generate constant laughs, can your thriller genuinely spook the reader, is your mystery a page turner?

3) Quality of your Writing

– Can you execute this idea given your current skill set and background?

– If you want to write an historical epic, do you have the understanding, education and research capabilities to write an authentic piece of work?

– If writing a humorous story, are you funny enough? Do other people think so too?!

– Have you experienced similar emotions or experiences to characters (even if the situations may have been wildly different?).

Give yourself plenty of time to think about each idea in detail, and trace out a rough outline for a plot. If you are struggling to get from A to B, or you just can’t pin down your protagonist, it may be time to move on to the next idea.

Don’t stress about being absolutely original either though.  It is very difficult to do this. In the words of one crime writer:

“There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.” – Jim Thompson


The word genre pronounced Jon-ra, means “kind, sort, or style”.  It is a label that characterizes elements a reader can expect from a novel, so within each genre there will be similarities in style, or subject matter. A novel can be written in any genre.

Some authors prefer to create there own genre, but it is best to write a book which does have a known category – especially your first – because then publishers know how to sell it and where it will be in the bookshop. If you write something completely different you are limiting your audience, challenging the agent and publisher to take a chance on you, and confusing the bookstore owners who don’t know where to place it on the shelves.

Knowing your genre also helps you figure out who you are writing this book for.  Who is your most likely reader? Just writing a book and hoping someone likes it is a mistake many new writers make.  You need to have more direction to give your novel a chance of publication.  A professional writer will write specifically for a market and send it to publishers who focus on that genre.


The basic question you need to ask yourself is: what kind of book are you writing?

Beyond that, consider: how is it similar to other books? How is it different from other books? What is the core audience for your novel? Does your story share a set of common conventions with others?

Whichever genre captures your imagination, your story will broadly fit into one of these categories –

– Action story – plot based, high octane drama, very physical, fast pace, sense of urgency, one cliffhanger after another, dashing here, there and everywhere.

– Reflective story – character based, much slower development, plenty of self-reflection, emphasis on relationships and internal conflict, much more subtle overall.

Which of these does your story lean towards?

Breaking it down further after that, you can think about the emotion you intend to illicit in your audience and that will help you take another step to confirming your genre.

Love = Romance

Laughter = Comedy

Intellectual Curiosity = Mystery & Thriller

Thrill = Action & Adventure

Escapism and Wish fulfillment = Fantasy & Adventure

Mixing some emotions can lead to richer material, you can also unsettle the reader if you misjudge the combination you choose. Understanding which emotions sit comfortably together can help in finding a balance in your story. Audiences in the middle of an epic battle do not wish to be interupted by a love story, unexpected is good, but mixing genre’s randomly is not.

Now we can subdivide genres even further to narrow your focus…


– Action / Adventure – physical jeopardy / journeying outside of the normal world.

– Apocalyptic / Post-Apocalyptic – how people cope with the breakdown of society.

– Biography – focusing on a real life person as subject matter, distilling their struggles or achievements into a feature.

– Comedy – the intention of making the audience laugh.

Romantic Comedy – the funny side of our attempts to find and keep love.

– Coming of Age – passing from one stage of life to the next, whether childhood to adolescence, or work to retirement –

– Crime – the execution or prevention of crime.

Detective – following the efforts of a professional, or amateur, to find a perpetrator or evidence.

Heist / Caper – executing a criminal plan – a robbery, a murder, a prison break.

Murder Mystery / Whodunnit – the process of finding out who committed a murder.

– Disaster – coping with momentary disaster – different from the continued disaster of post-apocalyptic novels.

– Drama – a serious story involving plenty of emotional development within the characters. These stories take on intense issues, involve interruptions to everyday life, and a struggle plays out.

– Epic – stories which span locations and time.

– Fantasy – set in brand new worlds, where the appeal often comes from the uniqueness of the setting. A genre generally using magic, mythological beings and devices to create conflict.

– Historical / Period – set in a recognizable era, using historical events or backdrops to transport the viewer to another time.

Chiller – our fears of uncertainty..

Survival – our fear of being put into situations where our life is continuously imperiled and we must struggle to survive –

Mystery – where the audience is presented with an intellectual problem and seeks a solution, with elements of the story remaining unexplained until the big reveal at the end.

Romance – the pursuit or maintenance of love, a story concentrating on relationships and emotions and all their complexities.

Science Fiction – presenting an alternative science reality – can be a futuristic world with new rules or small ‘what ifs’ questioning the possible effects of science and technology on today’s society.

Sports – the pursuit of victory in games – the ability to rise and find the best in ourselves.

Thriller – full of excitement and / or suspense as a battle between good and evil plays out – usually in the form of a detective investigation. Stories usually involve illegal activities, international espionage, and violence.

Tragedy – a plot which will end disastrously and sadly, with the downfall of the character caused by a flaw within them and their resulting destructive behavior.

War – when greed, violence and grudge erupt on a national scale, and the impacts on individuals.

Western – set on the expanding Western frontier in the United States, but more broadly about new societies forming and the struggle for order.

With some of the main genres listed here, and hundreds of subgenres, and thousands of potential hybrid combinations of genres, it is easy to see just how many possibilities there are.

Once you have decided the genre you’re going to work with, you should read even more extensively in that field to help you research what has been done before and why it worked so well.  Also, you don’t want to spend months or even years of your life writing a book that has already been published!


“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club” -Unknown

To be a better writer you must read.  Not only will this expose you to new vocabulary and different styles of writing, reading the great work of other writers will also inspire you.  It will make you realize that writing is hard work and that you shouldn’t settle for writing just any old novel.  But be warned I have noticed that reading while writing can be dangerous, you will start writing your own novel more, and more like the book you are reading.

You can get inspiration from any where, even a newspaper, an article that really grabs you with interesting characters and dialougue.

If you are really stuck for inspiration, try one of these to jumpstart your ideas:

Classical music. Listen to some classical music – preferably live.  Close your eyes and allow your imagination to mold the music into shapes and ideas. After each piece, take out a notebook and jot down everything that came into your mind. This may be a fragmented list of colors, shapes and creatures, or your mind may have followed the journey of the composition and given you the sense of a story.

Change of scenery. Visit somewhere new. This can be a local neighborhood you’ve never spent any time in, or a country you’ve always wanted to see. When you stimulate your mind with new surroundings, you open yourself up to inspiration all around.

Exercise. Take a long walk (or even jog!) by yourself. The endorphins released by your exercise will cheer you up if you are in a particularly uninspired mood, and time spent along with your thoughts is important for any budding writer.

Talk! Start a conversation with a stranger. Everyone has a story to tell, and pretty much everyone loves to talk about themselves. Strike up a conversation with absolutely anyone – as long as you know nothing about them. Gradually ask them about themselves until you get a sense of their lifestyle, background and character. Jot down a few notes (not in front of them, obviously) and see if a new character begins to form.

New novelists. Go to a library and read material completely new to you, from a section you’ve never ventured into.

Observe. Go to a park, sit on a bench, and people watch.  See how they meet and greet each other, see how they act in conversations, see how they relax or exercise.  Who takes their lunch there? Who walks their dog there?  What are their lives like outside of the park? Build stories up in your mind about these people, it will get your imagination whirring.

– Articles & Real Life Events.  Read newspapers and magazines, whether in print or online – they can be a fantastic reservoir of stories, acting as a daily round-up of all that is interesting in the world.  Worth noting, if you directly use real-life figures in your story, then permission should be sought. However, articles may form the basis of an idea without using the details or events from the article.

– Personal experiences – The added advantage of using your own real life experiences comes in familiarity with the emotional experiences, and the richness of detail you might possess if you’ve operated in an idiosyncratic world.

– Pure imagination – sit back, relax, maybe have a nap and dream – ideas can be plucked from the ether without source material (though your experiences will likely feed into this process at some stage). Put yourself in the best mental positioning for creative thinking – do you respond best to quiet strolls in the woods, jotting ideas whilst watching the football, or blasting your ear-drums with loud music?

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.” – Will Self


When you’re hit with a moment of inspiration, you will know all about it. The air will fizz with sudden potential and the world around you will fade away as your mind jumps between the infinite possibilities of timelines and characters and story arcs and conversations. For many writers, this is the best part of the process – but unfortunately, it is not sustainable.  If you want to do justice to your great ideas and unique characters, you need to find a way to stay inspired.

Writers’ groups or online forums can be inspiring for some writers and keep you motivated once you’ve got going.  Others find this sort of gathering unbearable, but it can give you an invaluable chance to run ideas by people who are objective and will approach solutions to possible difficulties you are having with the experience of writing themselves.  Go to a credible source and submit some writing, and let them tell you if it’s worse then the gum on your shoe or if you have real potential.

Writing groups have been around since the time of Socrates (he used to work alongside Plato and Xenophon, comparing notes and discussing new ideas). Perhaps the most famous example of a successful writing group is when J.J.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis met every tuesday to discuss each others writing

As the bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, says: don’t be afraid to be a tortoise when you sit down to write – take your time, stick with it and you will get there in the end.

Often you need to go back to your original material / whatever inspired you to get a boost, or return to your plan to remind you what to focus on.  If you have stalled because you have lost your way or dug yourself into a plot hole, you just need to revisit your first key plot points and rewrite your plan or introduce a new character / different skill / alternative workplace to helpyou out of the sticky situation.